Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The Craic 2010

By M.A. Peel
There is a special annual festival in New York that doesn’t get as much attention as it should, The Craic, Irish for an Irish sense of the word crack meaning fun, entertainment, and good conversation. For 12 years now producers Terrence Mulligan and the Fleadh Foundation have brought Irish film (and music) to the forefront near the feast of St. Patrick. It’s where I saw the excellent Irish language film Kings last year.

This year it was Conor McPherson’s ghost story The Eclipse (which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year), and a documentary on Liam Clancy from Alan Gilsenan. (I missed the Friday night documentary on Gabriel Byrne, Stories from Home.)

There’s No Ghost Story Like an Irish Ghost Story

The rain was pelting, hard, fast, with an angry force. At the crossroads by the canal the winds swirled in powerful eddies as the banshees howled and screamed relentlessly. Those daring to cross felt nearly a solid wall of wind against them, barring their way.

No, that’s not the film. That’s my experience getting to Tribeca Cinema to see The Eclipse on Saturday in the middle of the Nor’easter.

Conor McPherson is an Irish playwright deeply connected to the mystical side of his people’s race. The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer, Dublin Carol all have characters haunted by obvious, rational memories, but McPherson knows that which lies beneath. He brings Satan into the poker game, not some metaphor for evil, but Satan himself. It’s not a matter of belief; for McPherson the elements of the religious and supernatural simply exist. Some people are conscious of them, others aren’t.

The Eclipse is based on a short story by playwright Billy Roche, who co-wrote the film with McPherson. It’s set in the seaside town of Cobh, Cork, during a literary festival. The great Ciaran Hinds (whom I saw as Mr. Lockhart in the Broadway Seafarer) plays Michael Fahr, a widower raising two children after losing his wife to cancer who volunteers for the festival. His father-in-law (his old Seafarer colleague Jim Norton) is not happy in the nursing home Michael has put him in. And so there’s some rational haunting going on.

Michael feels a connection to an English author he’s been driving to festival venues (the glamorous Iben Hjejle) who writes ghost stories. She’s being dogged by a fool of an American author played by Aidan Quinn. A triangle of sorts, and then there are “the others.”

It’s an appealing, seductive contemporary Irish film. The dialogue is witty, the stunning scenery beautifully shot, and the soundtrack an appropriately haunting new composition from Fionnuala Ni Chiosain, think of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem meets Enya. Kyrie eleison. Agnus Dei.

But it’s Ciaran who draws you in with his natural, beguiling gravitas. And as John Anderson said in Variety, “That the drunkest person in an Irish film is an American (Quinn) will have to be considered payback for what we did to Barry Fitzgerald.”

The Life and Times of Liam Clancy

O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst -
I was sober a while, but I'll drink and be wise
For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.

The documentary filmmaker Alan Gilsenan chose this Irish-language 18th century poem as the title of his intimate portrait, The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy. It was five years in the making, with Liam on a huge sound stage, perched on a stool with his guitar and signature cap, regaling us with a lifetime of stories and clips shown on a large screen in front of him. It’s fascinating to see the threads of his life come together.

What a life it was, blessed by “the sound.” The Clancy Brothers’s singing is bracing in its perfect harmonies, exuberant in sound and spirit. Each of the brothers had a distinctive voice highlighted by particular songs. Liam’s voice was the purest, the sweetest, light and piercing.

The youngest of 11 Clancys, he was brought to New York by Diane Hamilton, the Guggenheim in hiding who went to Ireland to research and capture folk singing in 1955. Diane had met Paddy and Tom Clancy in NY, and they told her to go see their mother in Tipperary. There she met Liam, and took him on her journey to around Ireland and Scotland, and to the home of Sarah Makem, where Liam met Tommy Makem for the first time.

Liam tells the story of his involvement with Diane, and does not shy away from the later alcoholic nervous breakdown he had. It’s an honest look at the life behind the performer, the ups and the downs. And Gilesnan broadens the scope of the film to see the Clancys in relation to what was going on the in 1960s.

Even if you aren’t Irish, Liam is a good raconteur who spins a tale that draws you in. And he has some universal words of wisdom about “growing up, growing old.” Here he is with his brothers and Tommy Makem, from their 1984 reunion tour, and “The Shoals of Herring.”

Liam Clancy died on Dec. 4, 2009, the last of the quarter to leave us.

Cross posted at M.A. Peel

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